Self Portrait, J.M.W. Turner. 1799, oil on canvas. Image: Wikipedia Self Portrait, J.M.W. Turner. 1799, oil on canvas. Image: Wikipedia

He was born in London in 1775. The son of a barber, he took painting lessons at a very young age and proved to be very gifted. Beginning in the end of the 1780s, he assisted architects and engravers., and by 1789, he was accepted into the prestigious Royal Academy.

Fishermen at Sea, J.M.W. Turner. 1796, oil on canvas. Image: Wikipedia Fishermen at Sea, J.M.W. Turner. 1796, oil on canvas. Image: Wikipedia

Turner exhibited his first watercolors at the age of 15 before turning to oil painting. Fishermen at sea (1796) and Moonlight (1797) already capture the young artist's rare mastery of light, reminiscent of the chiaroscuro of the Baroque painters. Dutch boats in a gale (1801) elevated the young painter to the rank of the great masters, and he was elected to be an academician at the age of 26.

Dutch Boats in a Gale, J.M.W. Turner. 1801, oil on canvas. Dutch Boats in a Gale, J.M.W. Turner. 1801, oil on canvas.

In 1802, Turner traveled across the European continent. Throughout his life, he would never stop returning to the same destinations to better capture their energy, painting from memory sometimes even years later. He always returned to his favorite destinations: France, Italy and Switzerland.

Dido Building Carthage, J.M.W. Turner. 1815, oil on canvas. Image: Wikipedia Dido Building Carthage, J.M.W. Turner. 1815, oil on canvas. Image: Wikipedia

Turner was also enthralled by history and heroic landscapes, which were represented in his works. Sun rising through vapour (1807) testifies to the classical heritage of Claude Le Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin. In 1814, he painted Dido building Carthage, based on Vergil's Aeneid, which he called his masterpiece.

Frosty Morning, J.M.W. Turner. 1813, oil on canvas. Image: Tate Frosty Morning, J.M.W. Turner. 1813, oil on canvas. Image: Tate

His inventiveness exploded. He introduced new colors that were the fashion of the time such as cobalt blue or bright yellow. In Frosty Morning (1813), he used  a bleached canvas to accentuate the soft brightness of the morning light. Many works from the years 1810-1820 are infused with with feverish gleams such Mortlake Terrace, 1827. His work shows a strong interest in Goethe's interest in botany and color and Newton’s scientific color research.

Eruption of Vesuvius, JMW Turner. 1817-20, oil on canvas. Image: art express.ws Eruption of Vesuvius, JMW Turner. 1817-20, oil on canvas. Image: art express.ws

Remarkable natural phenomena also emerges in his work: he painted the sea of ice in the Chamonix Valley (1814) and the Eruption of Vesuvius in a flame explosion (1817). Already the paintings show a veering into abstraction as light is  released in grandiloquent compositions (Hannibal and his army crossing the Alps, 1822). He further explores the chiaroscuro technique that he deploys in all possible color combinations, playing with light and darkness, distance and closeness, violence and calm.

Snow Storm: Hannibal and his army crossing the Alps, JMW Turner. 1812, oil on canvas. Snow Storm: Hannibal and his army crossing the Alps, JMW Turner. 1812, oil on canvas.

When he returned from Italy, he painted Rome seen from the Vatican (1820) in homage to Raphael. In addition, he painted classic battle scenes (Battle of Trafalgar, c.1822) and continued to pastiche Le Lorrain (Regulus, 1828). Calais, Sands at Low Water (1840) foreshadows the painting of a famous master at sunrise…

Calais, Sands at Low Water, JMW Turner. 1832, oil on canvas. Image: WIkimedia Calais, Sands at Low Water, JMW Turner. 1832, oil on canvas. Image: WIkimedia

In the famous Rain, Steam and Speed (1844), the train appeared only as a detail drowned in a storm of raging colors. This tendency asserts itself in late paintings, such as Snow Storm (1842) where everything dissolves into swirls of color, blurred strokes and hues of dove, slate and chestnut. The power of the natural elements reflects the weakness of existence, halfway between Burke’s sublime and Ruskin’s modernity. Turner was at the height of his art at the time, but few people appreciated his offbeat work.

Rain, Steam and Speed, JMW Turner. 1844, oil on canvas. Rain, Steam and Speed, JMW Turner. 1844, oil on canvas.

J.M.W. Turner died in 1851. He is buried with Royal Academy founder Joshua Reynolds in St Paul’s Cathedral in Wren, London. When he died, his frenetic production was discovered: thousands of gouaches, watercolors and accumulated paintings, all bequeathed to the English nation. Even today, the luminous intensity of Turner's paintings remains a mystery to many artists, a lesson that Delacroix, Monet, Pissarro and Kandinsky will learn in turn.

Giudecca, La Donna della Salute and San Giorgio, JMW Turner. 1841, oil on canvas. Giudecca, La Donna della Salute and San Giorgio, JMW Turner. 1841, oil on canvas.

J.M.W. Turner's works are highly sought after on the auction market. Giudecca, La Donna dell Salute and San Giorgio, a dreamy vision of Venice in the mid-1800s, sold at Christie's in 2006 to Las Vegas casino magnate Steve Wynn for an artist's record of $35.8 million. Turner's paintings hang in the world's major museums, including The Met, National Gallery in DC, the Tate Britain and the Art Institute of Chicago.

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